Business Magazine

Marissa, We Need to Talk: This Genie is Way out of the Bottle

Posted on the 27 February 2013 by Jlipnack @jlipnack

Dear Marissa,

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has a word or two to say to you. Tom Ashbrook (On Point, "Yahoos Ban on Working From Home") is holding forth with some savvy guests even as I type; Maureen Dowd has a biting op-ed in yesterday's NY Times ("Get Off Of Your Cloud"); and the bloggers have gone wild. Not to mention that I've received numerous emails including this one from a client: "Wish you could write a counter to this and have it published.  This does not help the cause..."*

I regret that I've had to make you a category here but with so much emotion swirling around the HR edict ordering all-hands on the Yahoo! deck, let's begin with some facts:

1. As a computer scientist, you might want to look at real data. There is little evidence to support the notion that people need to be face-to-face to collaborate OR innovate. Yes, there are moments to come together but not perpetually. Professor Tom Allen set the lie to this idea 35 years ago with his ground-breaking research for Digital Equipment Corporation. Simply, if people are more than 50 meters (150 feet) apart, the "probability that two people will communicate [at least once a week] as a function of distance separating them" plummets. Here's the chart:

Allen chart

2. "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?" With two business school professors, we researched 54 high-performing teams in 26 companies across 15 industries and the resounding conclusion from the data was "yes, indeed." Here's the quick summary from the Harvard Business Review where the study was published as "Best Practices:"

Some projects have such diverse requirements that they need a variety of specialists to work on them. But often the best-qualified specialists are scattered around the globe, perhaps at several companies. Remarkably, an extensive benchmarking study reveals, it isn't necessary to bring team members together to get their best work. In fact, they can be even more productive if they stay separated and do all their collaborating virtually.

The conclusion for Yahoo!: unless you're doing very simplistic projects, i.e. routine processing chores, stocking shelves, and the like, you're staffing your teams incorrectly. If you're looking for innovation, you need diversity, the subject of many studies before and after ours.There is no way that you have that diversity in toto within driving distance of your Silicon Valley. It's 2013, not 1950, the year the number of manufacturing workers reached its peak in the US.

3. Which leads right into this point. As per the title of this post, the genie is waaaay out of the bottle. Do you actually believe that people today work in intact teams? When you force everyone to co-locate, you're most likely not bringing in the people who actually work together. Do you have contractors? Partners in other companies? Suppliers? Vendors? Developers in India/China/Philippines/Singapore? Do your sales people spend their time in the office? (If your answer to this one is yes, perhaps we've pinpointed a big part of your problem.)

Unless Yahoo! has completely turned its back on development trends that are, say, as old as the Internet itself, team members are scattered around the globe. Yahoo! should do a study of where its team members are situated. We can place a pretty confident bet that they're not all in proximity of Yahoo! HQ.

And that's just the start of what's wrong with this 20th century edict.

4. Let's talk about culture for a moment, one of the big points of the "YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION--DO NOT FORWARD" HR memo that All Things D's Kara Swisher had up within moments, it seems, and which has been published everywhere.

Forcing people into the office hardly builds loyalty. It's abundantly clear that Yahoo! is attempting a massive and quick turnaround of its culture. The insults about the workforce, as reflected in posts around the web, are legion. The parking lot is only half-full at 9:30 AM. Stopping right there, in some companies, this is regarded as a virtue, meaning that carpooling and the like are working, cutting down on carbon emissions. (For more on this, take a look at the pioneering climate initiative at Unilever, which has coupled aggressive carbon reduction gains with new ways of working initiatives, both increasing productivity and innovation and reducing travel miles.)

There are equally numerous reports on the new Google-esque perks at Yahoo! -- better food, dry cleaning services, nicer digs, for example. What builds culture is commitment, positive reinforcement, and challenging work. If you think people aren't coming into the office because they don't like the food, I strongly recommend that you commission a study on this.

Likewise, do you have evidence that people don't collaborate? That people truly are slacking off at home? Data in study after study indicates that people are more productive when they are able to get up, do whatever morning things they have to do at home (tend to kids/parents/animals/themselves) and then get right to work, saving needless hours on the highway. Hello? Aren't we talking about a bit of traffic on 101?

A most startling stat on this, "The hard truth about telecommuting," from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review last June by Mary Noonan and Jennifer Glass and excerpted in the Dec 26 Scientific American: telecommuters on average work 5-7 hours longer per week.

5. 24/7. After ordering people back to their cubbies, are you also prohibiting them from working at home? Consider what you're saying in the-now-much-quoted HR memo to Yahoos: "To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. Some of the best decisions and insights comes from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and important impromptu meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together." OK, Yahoos. Turn off your phones at home; don't check your mail first thing in the morning (or last at night); and absolutely do not call from your cars. That applies to you, too, Marissa. Are you referring to your "speed and quality" when communicating from, as reported, your 14-day maternity leave?

6. I nearly can't bring myself to comment on this last point for which the young mother-CEO has been excoriated from GMT-12 to GMT+12. A few of your quotes are enraging to other parents, as you've heard. Just this one will follow you for life: "The baby's been easy. The baby's been way easier than everyone made it out to be." I had "easy" babies too but I found it best to keep that under my hat. Most babies are not and it's quite hurtful to other women to rub it in, i.e. stuff a rag in that comment forevermore. And it's irking your coworkers that you have permission to build a nursery next to your office (even if you paid for it). When are you building sidecars for all the other new moms?

Meanwhile, Marissa, please invite in, say, 40 or 400 or 4000 of the mothers, not to mention the fathers, in your company and listen to what it's like to get through a day. I'm watching a software executive who's your age with major responsibilities, as she is juggling young kids, big corporate decisions, a lot of travel, and being a good family member while her husband, although he doesn't travel as much, is also running on fumes as he works very long hours, cooks, and tells endless stories to the kids. And they can afford help.

There is something profoundly unglued, unrealistic, and uncompassionate in your new approach. Virtual Teams work -- I know. I wrote the book. Maybe you should read it.

--Jessica Lipnack, CEO, consultant, writer, mother, grandmother, and unsolicited advice-giver

 

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. - See more at: http://allthingsd.com/20130222/physically-together-heres-the-internal-yahoo-no-work-from-home-memo-which-extends-beyond-remote-workers/#sthash.BzYp4u24.dpuf To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. - See more at: http://allthingsd.com/20130222/physically-together-heres-the-internal-yahoo-no-work-from-home-memo-which-extends-beyond-remote-workers/#sthash.BzYp4u24.dpuf To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. - See more at: http://allthingsd.com/20130222/physically-together-heres-the-internal-yahoo-no-work-from-home-memo-which-extends-beyond-remote-workers/#sthash.BzYp4u24.dpu

*For the record, I posted the news as soon as it reached me last Friday.


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